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Tribute to those who inspire us – Pandit Sivanath Shastri: Champion of Women’s Emancipation

Born 31st January, 1847; Died 30th September 1919.

By Rita Bhimani


Well before I was born, my mother was exhorted by Pandit Sivanath Shastri that if she were to have a daughter, she should be called Ritam, meaning honest, divine truth. To have inherited such a name, but in a much broader perspective, to have had the fortune of an inheritance of a man ahead of his time, and to have imbibed it from women — my mother, Tapati Mookerji and my grandmother Suniti Devi who translated Atmacharit, Sivanath Shastri’s autobiography, has been a special boon.

My focus here is to take a somewhat feministic approach. The fact that it wasn’t sheer chance or happenance that my mother, a writer, her talented sisters, one an artist and the other an educationist, my grandmother Suniti Devi, writer in the intellectual Kallol Jug, or my great-great-grandmother, Hemlata Sarkar, founder of Maharani Girls School, could take the course of their special journeys. There surely was a fountainhead — in the person of Shastri Mahashay, from where sprang the inspiration and the insights in a symbiotic trickle-down effect.

We talk so blithely about emancipation of women, as if it were a graduation gown that has been wrapped around our “educated” shoulders. Just let’s rewind to a time which Sivanath Shastri has talked about in his autobiography, “set in a period of Indian history which witnessed the maturity of renascent India.” Edited by Nisith Ranjan Ray, twentieth century historian, social activist and the founder of the Society for Preservation of the cultural heritage of Kolkata, he mentions that Atmacarit is more than an autobiography of a universally respected luminary in the second half of the 19th century. “It is a mirror not only of an individual described by a modern writer as ‘probably the most respected Brahmo in all India’, but of the society in which he lived.”

It was not easy to overcome the deep seated prejudices of that era, as we follow Sivanath Shastri’s grasp of the ideals  of Brahmoism, his own formal initiation, following which was the decision to give up the Brahmanical thread that angered his father to the extent of disowning him.

Since I am focusing on the aspects of womanhood which Sivanath Shastri respected and encouraged, I have been quite taken by his tales about his feisty grandmother, and her high spiritedness. Once a thief managed entry into their house and was about to snatch his grandmother, Lakshmi Devi’s necklace while she slept. She was so alert, that she caught the thief’s hand in a vice-like grip from which he had to struggle hard to escape. Another time, in an enclosed area where they lived, almost within the Sunderbans, where tigers were known for their nightly visitations, it happened that a tiger had got into their enclosure. Grandfather came face to face with the beast, and cried out in fear.

Grandmother, busy in the kitchen, as she always was, seeing her husband face to face with the beast, quickly snatched a burning log from the kitchen fire and brandished it before the tiger which fled through the back door. What courage and presence of mind! The villagers were truly in awe of her.

There was also a different kind of enlightenment in his regard for women, in the way he handled the saga of his two wives. Prasonnomoyee had mothered his children and when Birajmohini came on the scene, (he had protested strongly against this), he told her that he was not going to live with her as man and wife. But he thought of educating her properly, so she could stand on her own feet, when necessary. It was difficult with both in the same house. One of his solutions came from going and spending the night in the verandah of the Hindu College on a large table. When the wives found out, they were disconsolate!

He did some amazing things personally for widows, getting one of them married to a close friend and presiding over the ceremony of another widow (for the first time in his life as an acharya); and another time “rescuing” Ganeshsundari who had been converted to Christianity, by giving her shelter in his own home with his family, giving her a new name Monomohini and then ultimately having the satisfaction of seeing her married to a respected friend of his.

But let me come to the lives of women nearer home in my family. While Prasannomoyee had been closely attuned to her husband’s thinking – religious or educational or rational thought, or his boundless work in social reform, it was their daughter, Hemlata, my great-great-grandmother, who imbibed these values. At 16 she went to Sunday School established by her father. Mixing with older teachers there proved to be an upliftment in her own development. These women were to help Sivanath in publishing a children’s magazine called “Mukul” from 1895, of which Sivanath himself was the Editor.  My mother’s Bilater Diary was published in this very magazine many years down the line when she was only 13!

My youngest mashi, Sevati Sarkar, who was the principal of Rani Birla, related to us a beautiful story of how Hemlata met her future husband. Pandit Sivanath Shastri had gone to South India to preach the Brahmo ideals of the Upanishads, but there he became ill and his friends send a young doctor, Bipin Behari Sarkar who had joined the Brahmo Samaj, to the ailing Sivanath. Hemlata had also gone there to look after her father. The doctor was so impressed with her devotion and care, that on returning to Calcutta he approached Sivanath for Hemlata’s hand in marriage. He agreed! They were married in 1893.

And that was the beginning of a most interesting saga. They were called to Nepal to serve, where Hemlata wrote “A Bengali Woman in Nepal”. After a few years, they decided to come to Darjeeling and settled in its salubrious surroundings. His practice flourished and she started focusing totally on education. Seeing that her daughters could not be admitted to Loreto in those days, she decided to start her own. With help from three women of royal families, she started the Maharani Girls School, inn 1908. The school still stands on Hill Cart Road in Darjeeling, with over 450 students.

Hemlata also worked as the first woman Municipal commissioner of Darjeeling. She ably conducted another important bit of work. The ‘mandir’ that was opened for the citizens of Darjeeling by Sivanath Shastri years back, was something where she and her husband succeeded in building a new prayer hall and they enthused the populace to come to prayers every Sunday.

On his 102nd death anniversary, I feel humbled to pen this note on someone whose vast body of writing, his scholarship, his religious reform, but most of all, his championing of the many facets of women’s emancipation, has given us courage to move ahead in forming our careers, our values and our self belief.

[Rita Bhimani has named her PR consultancy Ritam Communications, to respect Sivanath Shastri’s prescient naamkaran. She teaches Media Studies, has authored several books on PR and one on music, and another on Muga, and is a regular columnist for various publications—all of these “talents” she owes to the strong women of earlier eras. She has produced a documentary on Raja Rammohun Roy.]

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